BOSTON – John Kerry's "band of brothers" said Monday that getting the Massachusetts senator elected president is their final mission — one they would go to hell and back for if necessary.
"If John Kerry (search) came up to us and said we had one more swift boat mission and we were going to hell, he would have a full crew," said David Alston, a crewmate of Kerry, who commanded a Navy river swift boat in the Vietnam War and earned the Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts for his service in 1968-1969.
"We are on one last mission – our last tour of duty,” said Alston, who spoke at a rally for the inaugural Veterans Caucus (search) at the Democratic National Convention Monday.
Former Sen. Max Cleland (search), D-Ga., who has been campaigning extensively throughout the country on behalf of Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, said traveling to the fiery underworld — again — won't be necessary.
"We ain't going to hell — we've been to hell," said the Vietnam veteran, who lost two legs and his right hand in the war. "We're going to the White House."
Hundreds of people — from pony-tailed Vietnam veterans and older Korean War and World War II soldiers to convention delegates and even peace protesters — filled a grand ballroom at the Sheraton Boston Hotel for the rally, which featured other members of Kerry's former crew. It also included veteran Jim Rassman (search), the man whose life Kerry saved during an attack on the patrol boat convoy.
These and a number of other veterans calling themselves Kerry's "band of brothers" — a nod to the World War II-based HBO mini-series — provided the human backdrop to the event.
Emceed by Democratic activist and commentator James Carville, a Marine Corps veteran, the rally also featured a rousing speech by former presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark (search), who championed Kerry's military credentials.
"We are all members of John Kerry's band of brothers and we are all committed to the kind of leadership we need in the war," Clark said, echoing a message the Kerry campaign hopes will ring loud and clear to voters this fall. "[John Kerry] is the candidate we need to lead this country in this time of war."
Referring to his fellow veterans, Clark said leaders like Kerry have a special insight into waging military action abroad.
"We've seen every part of combat and training ... we've seen villages and towns destroyed. We've seen lives ravaged," he said. "We must use force only, only, only as a last resort."
While DNC officials say the veterans helped launch Kerry's successful bid for president by putting him over the top in the Iowa primary back in February, not all veterans are marching in lockstep with his message. Veterans for Peace (search), an activist group with an anti-war message, wants to remind Kerry how adamantly anti-war he was in 1971 after returning from Vietnam.
"Bring home the troops now! Get out of Iraq!" yelled one Veteran for Peace member, who attempted to get his message out during one of Carville's introductions.
"We are all frustrated that no mainstream politicians are talking about this," said veteran Ellen Barfield, who traveled from Baltimore, Md., as vice president of Veterans for Peace.
In fact, the Democratic platform as crafted for the convention does not condemn the war in Iraq, and even says pre-emption is appropriate when the United States faces an imminent threat from a non-conventional enemy. It also calls for bolstering resources for national defense, reaching out for additional international support, and keeping the troops in the theater to complete the mission of making Iraq secure.
Veterans for Peace members acknowledge that dissent on this issue will mar the message of unity the party is trying to create as well as the image that Kerry is tough on terror and a strong military leader.
"It's a longstanding mistake the Democratic Party has been making for years," said Stephen Sherrill, a member of the Veterans for Peace from California. "They all know that war is wrong and the troops need to come home – but they won't say it."
Vietnam veteran Sandy Campbell, a Colorado Republican who is supporting Kerry, said he was against the war, even before the first strikes against Iraq were launched in March 2003. However, he thinks Kerry is by far the best man to get the country out of it and to restore the country's image to the rest of the world.
"I would trust his judgment more," said Campbell, whose 20-year-old son's Marine Corps unit is heading for the Middle East on an 18-month tour of duty. "George Bush is a fearful man, he is a very fearful man. America has lost the moral ground."
George Jaegar, a World War II veteran who served as a foreign service officer with the State Department during the Cold War, said he has never seen such anti-American sentiment abroad, and implicitly blames Bush's policies.
"You can't take a great nation to war for flimsy or untrue reasons," he said, referring to the issue of the so-far undiscovered weapons of mass destruction (search) in Iraq. "We used to have a great reservoir of good will, now we can't find any friends anymore."
But at the band of brothers rally, talk of the war's merits was noticeably absent, and at points slipped into negative outcries against Bush — a message the DNC is trying hard to not to project.
"John Kerry is a better man than Bush!" yelled Carville to thunderous applause, while Cleland referred to Bush's National Guard service during Vietnam as avoiding the war.
Taylor Griffin, spokesman for the Bush campaign, said what really matters is the policies Bush has instituted in support of both veterans and the military. In contrast, he said that as a senator, Kerry advocated for nearly $7.5 billion in cuts to programs, particularly in the area of military readiness.
"I think veterans and people acting in our military know that our president's record in providing support for our veterans as well as providing support for our troops is far superior to that of John Kerry."